Traditional Publishing: The Oldest Path (Sort Of)
Renee Frey, CMO Authors 4 Authors Publishing
As we explore our publishing paths, let's take a close look at the “Big 5” publishers, and what it means to go “traditional” when publishing.
What are the “Big 5?”
Simply put, through years of mergers and acquisitions, there remain five main trade book publishing houses. These companies are the largest book publishers in the US, and all have their headquarters in New York City. They are:
These companies are really large and own smaller imprints. For example, if you’re a science fiction or fantasy fan, you’ve probably heard of Tor, which is an imprint of MacMillan. Many of these imprints have separate offices and have their own set of editors, publicists, and other specialties needed to bring a book to life.
Publishing with the Big 5
Publishing with the Big 5 is not an easy process—at least, not when you’re trying to break into the industry. The best comparison I can think of is interviewing for a top executive position at a company. It’s not one interview, or a phone screen and an interview, but rather a series of interviews, meetings, and a lot of hope.
Step 1: Find an Agent
While the Big 5 have “slush” piles (unsolicited manuscripts) these usually get farmed out to interns or other unpaid labor to read. Very rarely will a publisher pick up an unsolicited manuscript. Most of them wait for an agent to approach them with a manuscript to purchase. This works for the larger companies because they don’t have to pay someone to weed through all the submissions to find ones that are marketable. An agent does that “for free” (more on that later) thus saving the publishing house the overhead involved. The publishing house doesn’t pay the agent for the work, the author does.
To get an agent, you have to query and submit to agents looking for manuscripts like yours. You can usually find agents with a little bit of research. If an agent likes your book, they will offer to represent you and try to sell your book in exchange for a commission. That commission is a percentage of what your book sells for, and a percentage of any royalties the book earns. The commission ranges from ten to twenty percent, with most commissions right in the middle at fifteen percent.
Querying an agent is difficult and time-consuming: you may get a lot of rejections before you find an agent. Many agents are overwhelmed with submissions, so they may take a long time to get back to you, or even lose track of you in the shuffle. If you opt to go this route, be professional but be in touch since the “squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
The Agent (Hopefully) Sells Your Book
If an agent decides to represent you, they will approach their contacts in the publishing industry and try to sell your book. The publisher will look at the book, and based on market research, decide how much they think it will cost to publish and how much they expect to make on the book and offer a price. You will receive this price as an advance (minus the agent commission). Bidding wars can increase the price, but you don’t want the price too high, since failing to earn out your advance can make the publisher question whether or not to keep you on as an author. This is a very involved process, but thankfully your agent handles most of it.
Your Book Gets Published
You’ll be contractually obligated to make edits and review changes, like those made during proofreading and copyediting. However, the Big 5 tend to be very hands-on when publishing—so while they may get your opinion on things, they will handle writing the blurb, designing the cover, and other parts of putting together the book.
They will also put together a sell sheet, and try to sell your book to distributors, such as Barnes and Nobles. These are almost exclusively for physical books, as ebooks populate in their distributors automatically. They will also submit your book to renowned reviewers, and pay for reviews and publicity for your book. You will be expected to promote your book, but contrary to the reputation they receive, the Big 5 do put time and resources into marketing a book—they just mostly happen behind the scenes.
You Write Your Next Book (But Still Market This One)
The beauty of receiving an advance means you can dedicate time to write the next book in a series or in general. You should still try to arrange readings and signings, but you can start writing your next book.
How Does That Sound?
In some ways, the process I described above is great! Notice how you, the author, aren’t doing a whole lot once you get that agent. This is probably the biggest advantage of the Big 5: you can focus on writing, and someone else handles the nitty gritty of the publishing and marketing. These publishers have the best reach, and can really get your book out to lots of markets.
So, what’s the catch?
You don’t make that much money. First, you have to earn back that advance. And for each book sold, less than ten percent of the list price actually goes towards that advance. So for your first year of hardback sales, for a book priced at $20, maybe two dollars goes into that advance. And until you earn that out, you don’t receive royalties. After that first year, paperbacks earn even less. You may receive a better rate on ebooks, but it’s nowhere near the seventy percent you would receive self-publishing, or the higher amounts offered at small or mid-sized publishers.
The Big 5 grew designed to sell print books. Yes, they offer ebooks, but their relationships are with printers and physical stores. And unfortunately, there’s just not as much traffic to traditional book stores anymore (or stores in general, at that).
Ebooks appear in a crowded market since self-publishing makes it easy for anyone to publish a book. The publishers do what they can, but with that much noise, it’s very difficult to get a message through and direct readers to your book.
Wait, now this sounds terrible!
It’s not. I promise. It’s just not the gold standard that it used to be. Many people do feel that they haven’t “made it” as an author unless they are traditionally published. But when you compare earnings, there are self-published authors that make a lot more money than traditionally published authors.
Like anything else in life, it’s a tradeoff. With traditional publishing, you give up control of your book and top royalties for someone else to do the majority of the publishing work (sorry, writing doesn’t count as publishing work). In exchange, you get a team of experienced professionals giving your book top-notch development, and the freedom to focus on your next project.
Now I REALLY Don’t Know What to Do
Like I said when I started this series, it’s not easy, and there is no universal answer. I hope I gave you an honest look at what works and doesn’t work for this publishing path. Now you have to ask yourself if it sounds like the right fit for you.
If it doesn’t, just check back in the coming weeks as I go into other publishing options. I’m sure one of them will be, as Goldilocks says, “just right.”
Just us next week when I talk about small presses and electronic presses.
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